Day four of the UEFA 'A' licence (part 2) began with a lecture entitled "Preparing the International Team". Steve Robinson, a UEFA Pro licence coach who is currently the manager of Northern Ireland's U21 team, delivered the presentation.
The presentation centred on the Northern Ireland U17 team, and their progress to the Elite Stage of the European Championships. It was there that they faced the Netherlands, which was the focus of the lecture and practical session that followed.
Robinson set his team up to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, to counteract the Netherlands' traditional 4-3-3. He walked us through his reasoning for doing so, and one of his primary objectives was to stop the Netherlands playing 'at source' - which means he wanted to disrupt their passing game by pressuring them in their own half.
Robinson pushed one of his holding midfielders in his 4-2-3-1 formation onto the deep lying midfielder from the Netherlands, as the Dutch were playing with a traditional triangle shape in midfield (as opposed to the more attacking inverted triangle in midfield). This allowed Northern Ireland to force the Dutch into lower percentage passes into midfield or cross-field, allowing Northern Ireland to recover possession of the ball.
The match ended in a 2-2 score, a result that pleased the Northern Irish underdogs.
Robinson demonstrated his defensive formation in a practical session, as well as a variety of practical finishing exercises that he utilized with the team. What impressed me about the exercises was that they were 'match-related', meaning that they were transferable to realistic match situations, rather than static finishing exercises.
Professor Mark Williams, from the Centre for Sport Medicine and Human Performance at Brunel University, delivered the afternoon lecture. It was entitled, 'Talent Identification: Are there early scientific markers of success in football?'
Williams outlined the various ways that scientific measurement can play a role in talent identification: anthropometry, physiology, psychology and sociology. While all had their benefits, they also had significant drawbacks.
Many anthropometric measurements are amenable to training and diet, and are affected by the rate of physical growth and maturation. Physiological measurements are highly influenced by training, and performance is dependent on previous exposure to training. It is also not clear how fitness indicators track through from childhood to adulthood.
Psychological factors are also amenable to instruction and training, and mental skills improve with experience. Sociological measurements are unclear, as there is no consensus on what to measure, or on how accurate those measurements are. Additionally, personality characteristics change over time, so what might seem like a measurable trait at the age of 8 might not be relevant by the age of 18.
The summary was that the practical utility of a scientific approach to talent identification is unclear.
That being said, I found Professor Williams' presentation to be extremely interesting. I asked this of the Professor, "Is the competition structure for youth soccer, which places a high premium on winning and a low premium on skill development, a natural impediment to talent identification and development, given that players are selected based on their ability - generally due to advanced physical development - to 'win' at young ages?"
The simple answer was 'yes' - selecting players who have the physical traits necessary to 'win' at younger ages does impede the talent identification and development of young players. This only served to confirm the need for competition reform in youth soccer in Canada, shifting the emphasis away from 'win-at-all-costs' to the more holistic approach promoted by LTPD.
Watt Nicoll delivered the final session of the day, entitled 'World Class - Why would you settle for less?'
I have to admit, Watt is someone that I have known and worked with for the last seven years. He is a close friend - and one of the smartest people I have come across in the game.
It is difficult to categorize Watt; he is part motivational speaker, part entertainer, and part life-coach. He really is a 'jack of all trades', and if you ever have the chance to hear him speak, I highly recommend it.
Watt's presentation centred on the skills needed for a manager to do three things: get the job, do the job and keep the job.
He spoke of the importance of having a personal development plan - of knowing what your goal is and how you are going to achieve it - and gave a very powerful example.
Over 15 years ago, he gave a similar talk to a group of aspiring coaches. At the end of his talk, he told the group that if any of them wanted assistance in planning how to achieve their goals, he would be glad to help.
Only one man came forward on that day. He outlined his goal to Watt, and together, they set about charting a course for how that goal could be achieved. It took 14 years for that man to 'get the job' he always dreamed about, but he achieved his dream.
The job was to be the manager of Manchester United. The man was David Moyes.